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Rita Bullwinkel talks about her novel 'Headshot' and writing about women's boxing


"Headshot" is a knockout of a novel - follows the hearts, minds and gloved knuckles of eight teenage girls in the 12th Annual Women's 18 and Under Daughters of America Cup, which takes place at Bob's Boxing Palace in Reno, which, let's just put it this way, is not the Sphere in Las Vegas. The contestants have both a lot in common and just about nothing. In her short, hard-punching novel, Rita Bullwinkel manages to capture the girls and scenes and phrases from childhood into the ring, then out into that bigger ring called life. Rita Bullwinkel is an assistant professor of English at the University of San Francisco and also the new editor of McSweeney's Quarterly. Thank you so much for being with us.

RITA BULLWINKEL: Oh, my gosh. Scott, thank you so much for having me.

SIMON: What drew you into this world?

BULLWINKEL: I grew up as a competitive youth athlete. I've never been a boxer. I'm not a boxer. But I was a very competitive water polo player. I was the co-captain of a D1 team, and from the age of about 12, most of my youth was shaped by driving kind of all over the country to tournaments that looked very much like the tournament in this book.

The thing that made me really feel like I had access to this world of youth women's boxing was when I found this trove of what were essentially training videos on YouTube of young women who were recording themselves for hours at a time. And it was through these videos, these long, unedited training videos, that I felt like I could see myself in these young women and I felt like I had access to them in their experience.

SIMON: Let me ask you about some of the characters. And I want to begin with Andi Taylor. And as a reader, you worry that she doesn't seem to care if she lives or dies, much less wins or loses, because she feels guilt about something.

BULLWINKEL: She does feel that way. She was a lifeguard, and she witnessed and was on duty when a young child drowned. And I think that this question haunts her. Is she responsible for this child's death? And it's a kind of haunting that will never leave her, that's here with her in the boxing match, that's present with her as she fights, but it'll be present with her for the rest of her life.

We all carry around things like that. And I think that something really strange and alchemical happens when you're using your body for something really difficult, where your unconscious goes to, like, uncontrollable places, essentially, and the things that haunt you can kind of come to the surface. And it seemed to me for her as a character that it felt true to her lived experience and how she fought as a boxer that she would be haunted by this and would be unable to not think about it while she was boxing.

SIMON: Let me ask you to read a section. And it's two opponents, Rachel Doricko and Kate Heffer, in the ring, and we'll warn people this might be tough to hear.

BULLWINKEL: (Reading) Rachel's pounded-veal legs are glistening. Sweat has pasted her hair to her temples. She's standing taller than Kate, so her headgear looks grand, like the tallest building in a cityscape whose backdrop is the sea. Reno's midday light filters in through the skylight of Bob's Boxing Palace and sits on the heads of the onlookers. In their scattered chairs and leaning and standing poses, the onlookers look like court-of-law witnesses. Rachel Doricko wishes someone would interview them after. Did you see it? - Rachel would ask them. Did you see Kate Heffer counting to nowhere? Did you hear that Rachel called Kate a good boy and that neither of the girls wanted to be good dogs, and the way that Rachel made Kate chomp on pennies until all that was left in Kate Heffer's mouth was a hole of broken teeth?

SIMON: What's going on inside is almost as - inside their minds and hearts - is almost as tough to hear as what's going on in the ring, isn't it?

BULLWINKEL: It's true. There is some joy in the book, too. I mean, that's a brutal section where, you know, Rachel is kind of fantasizing about physical glory of her opponents. But I'd like to think that there are sections of the book where I allow the young women moments of a future joy, or imagined joy, as well. What do you think, Scott?

SIMON: Oh, I think there were, which brings up - you tell us what happens to them later in life. You know, we don't have to wait for an epilogue.


SIMON: Why did you decide to do that?

BULLWINKEL: You know, I think that one of the really magical things that fiction can do is really move in extraordinary ways with time. I think about stories like Primo Levi's "Distant Star" (ph), and I knew that the space of the boxing match, something I really liked about it, about having this space where each chapter was essentially a portrait of two women fighting against each other - that are not speaking to each other, but are engaging with each other in a nonverbal way - that it could allow me this kind of like extraordinary movement in time backwards and forwards. And the book, you know, begins with an epigraph of kind of like the first recorded instance of young women playing sports. And it ends somewhere really, really distant, far out in space.

SIMON: Yeah. You know what is hard to read? So many of the young women later in their lives can't use their hands...


SIMON: ...Because they were boxers.

BULLWINKEL: It's true. I mean, one of my hopes for this book is that, you know, if you are a boxer, you will find authenticity in this book. Or maybe also anyone who's ever been driven to try something very difficult and to put all of their heart into it will also see themselves in these pages. And I think that when you, like, form your whole identity around something, whether it be a physical sport or something else, that that identity in your experience of doing whatever that activity is can leave a really strange archive in your body, whether it's, like, an injury that you live with forever or something else bodily within you - a tick or a habit.

I think about the way the body changes to - with really adept musicians. If you're someone who's like, always been a violinist, if you stop playing violin, your body is still shaped by, like, the many, many hours you spent on earth playing violin. And you posture yourself differently because of that. And so I was kind of interested in that archive of the body and the way sports injuries have this really strange experience of living on far beyond, in some cases, when you've left that identity behind.

SIMON: Do these characters go on with you?

BULLWINKEL: I do still think about them. It's a maximalist cast, right? There are eight young women characters, and I really think of each of them as being both me and not me in that, like, each of them have a little bit of my biography, and they all are kind of endowed with my own lived experience, and whether it be, like, a love or some intense pain or some joy. So I do think about them sometimes. They're still with me. They're hanging around.

SIMON: Rita Bullwinkel. Her first novel, "Headshot." Thanks so much for being with us.

BULLWINKEL: Oh, Scott, thank you so much for having me.

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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.